Remember this… before you get on yer bike. Nicole Cooke.

Nicole Cooke is relatively unknown, which slightly troubles me. Or if I stop to think about it, it does. Because then I/we have to consider just why a recent World Road Race and Olympic Champion at a sport which is now megatastically at the heart of TeamGB’s New Model Army is so… unrespected; generally.

Cooke was not as likely as (say) Pendleton to attract the adjective ‘lush’, perhaps. Could that be it? Is this key to her escape from our role-call of stars? Or (bizarrely?) the fact she is Welsh born? Or perhaps she simply but foolishly got her dates mixed up; being a real, majestic and irresistible force in her sport just a year or two before that sport – cycling, if you really hadn’t sorted that – landed so explosively in our family-sized bowl of Dorito’s.

In 2008, in one of the most remarkable and, for me, full-on blood-from-heart-drainingly poignant moments in recent sporting memory, an exhausted Cooke hoiked and blasted to victory in the Beijing rain. Rarely has the deep been so dug. She then followed up her olympian Olympic Gold with a World Road Race victory just a few weeks later. Now that may all trip rather glibly off the tongue but it does, nevertheless, represent something really special. As does the fact that she won 3 different World Junior titles – mountain bike/time trial/road race in the same year (2001.) But the accumulation of those two most senior of the senior titles seven years later constitutes a unique achievement in the history of cycling – men or women’s. And given that the pressures around these racing monuments – never mind the sheer physical effort – are utterly World-Cuply/Masters-final-greenly massive, we have to respect this athlete. Properly.

Anyone who saw and felt the quality of these two victories, encompassing as they did that stunning and defining range of champion grit and sublime athletic prowess, would already be fully on-side with my own adulation here. She gave everything, she showed us everything – she won out. Cooke was then, in every sense, a genuine world-beater.

However, many amongst The Great Un-oiled really might legitimately have missed either these or other(s) of Cooke’s serial triumphs on account of their absence from the primest of prime-time television. Cycling – in particular road racing – being a bona fide minority sport right up until a certain mod cruised his Vespa-replacement Module down the Champs- Elysees last year. Prior to that we did have gods on wheels-without-engines but the likes of Hoy and Pendleton tended to flash in and out of our consciousness on a weird, non-populist and only semi-registering basis, largely coincident with that five ring extravaganza. And is it just me, or is it somehow easier to get all steamed up and passionate about something happening in a noisy, nerve-janglacious velodrome? Open roads are different.

Let’s deny the oxygen of publicity to dumbstuff notions of relative ‘attractiveness’, anyway. Cooke was strong; she had a relentlessly powerful cadence on the bike rather than electrifying sprint speed. She had authority, consistency, presence – she absolutely competed. Nicole Cooke won two Tour de France titles and a Giro d’Italia as well as gawd knows how many British titles (10, I think) and World Cup racing events. She could and did dominate. And you buggers really should have noticed. Oh… and she did it clean.

As a travelling pro’ rider, the temptations were there. As a young woman (18/19?) Cooke was dolloped amongst the elite of the Women’s racing posse, an exposed and significant talent, fresh out of school, making her way in a tough and it turns out diabolically cynical world. In her retirement statement, delivered this week (essential read), she details being confronted with the requirement, as a ‘good team member’ to indulge in drug use on more than one occasion. But Cooke is emphatic that she, at least, rode clean throughout her long career.

There is a reflection on a watershed moment when (post a long chat with Dad) dubious bottles were thrown from the team fridge; by her; in a me-or-them stand-off. (The kind of defiance which cost her in an era when using EPO or other stimulants was deemed essential by the team-makers.) Team ethics and team procedures being typically shambolic – up to and including conventions regarding the regular payment of riders – the standard mode amongst the peloton appears to have been one of acquiescence… to just sticking the needles in, to stay competitive. The consequences for those stubborn or bold enough to cut across the conventional wisdoms were brutal. You either got sacked from the team, or you didn’t get paid. There were periods in her illustrious career where this particular, strong-willed World Number One athlete either did not get paid, or had to sue to obtain her daily bread. Partly no doubt, because she was kindof trouble when it came to substance abuse. Or the not doing of it.

During the years of travel, training and competition – even at the most elevated level – money, by comparison with many other sports, was laughably poor. (A moments reflection will not I think bring to mind too many sports where the very best in the world fear that they will actually get paid at all, never mind be remunerated proportionate to their talents.) Nicole Cooke, to repeat, the finest woman rider in the world for part of the mid-to-late nineties, had to fight for her money… and the money was ordinary.

Now, after that cruel zoning out period where invincibility fades, she has signed off. And in what seems likely to be an authentic farewell to her sport, Cooke has spoken out against the cheats. Armstrong, obviously, but also those in the women’s side of the sport that denied her, personally – and it does sounds personal.

Her statement is at once proud and understandably laced with bitterness. Because she knows she pumped those pistons bravely and honestly. She knows that she – very much with her parents help – drove hard, cleared the path for a better, more professional, slightly more equitable women’s tour. In the early days the Cookes seem to have bundled the British Cycling Federation into inventing events where previously there were none; girls events, which Nicole promptly extravagantly won – won with such undeniable force that further events, higher grade events were an absolute necessity. And thus both Nicole Cooke and women’s cycling in Britain grew up.

We’re nearing hagiography here and I don’t want that. Cooke may not have been widely loved; not necessarily because of her stance against doping. Lizzie Armistead (also a truly elite Brit rider) once said something rather biting about her; that (effectively) she never rode for anyone else. (In a sport where the concept of real unity and indeed selflessness is wonderfully expressed, such an opinion might be damning.) However it is likely the comment was meant more as a minor(?) personal slight than – for example – some profound dig at her ‘purity’ re the drugs. Whatever its meaning, if we think of many a stand-out sportsman or woman it’s hardly a killer gripe. Is it too surreal to bring a certain G Boycott into the equation here? And do he and Nicole share a certain slightly spookily brilliant single-mindedness, I wonder? Certainly there were nowt wrong with ‘er applicay-shun, anyroad.

Of course Armstrong may have been similar in this respect. All-consuming, desirous, physically incredible. But he got greedy, or low, or paranoid and… he cheated. As (allegedly) did the Canadian Genevieve Jeanson – named and shamed in Cooke’s retirement statement. The mature 29 year-old from Swansea, formerly of Cardiff Ajax Cycling Club condemns both in her statement, and the culture they went along with. Because they robbed her, because they brought disgrace to her wonderful sport – the one she’d poured seventeen years of her life right into.

In a week where the media have fallen right in behind Armstrong’s choreographed ‘apology’ it seems especially offensive that the retirement of a genuinely world-class British athlete has been so little heard or appreciated. Absurd if you consider how high the profile of our cycling heroes has risen and how much (really) Nicole Cooke did to prepare the way for elite women’s cycling in particular. She was, by a distance, the best in the world. And now if she gets a column inch it will surely be over comments relating to Armstrong and his fellow dope(r)s. She deserves more, she deserved more.

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The end of something.

As I write the Lance Armstrong saga is still twirling away; revelation and statement, bombshell and rumour. Today’s news again included collateral – the departure of Bobby Julich from Team Sky, following his confessions over doping in the Armstrong posse of the 70’s. Fascinatingly, despite the sport’s genuinely low profile, this Lancething has become a fully-fledged sporting monster, substantially outgrowing the cycling hinterland. In its black and whiteness, its moral and dope-linked certainties, this is one Recognisably Juicy Story – something for everyone to hang a prejudice or molten opinion upon – even though only six of us in Britain watched Armstrong win all this stuff. In France; whenever he won it. On Channel 4.

Yup, suddenly, we all want to spout polemically on the Tour – you do call it just like ‘the Tour’, right? – something we knew nothing about until wooh, last Wednesday? Because it’s a pearler, this; a truly striking and intoxicating fable where the appalling quality of the breach of honesty at its devilish heart cries out for reaction from honest folks like us. Downing again our Doritos, we rise magnificently to bawl in outrage ’til the thing splatters exponentially across the screens of lives normally blissfully immune from interest in U.S freakin’ Postal. And the guy himself goes from being a cancer-defying god to a hollow cheat and liar. Who goes on lying, woodyabelieveit?!?

Who goes on lying… about drugs. Because it’s presumably just too big a deal to row back from this very biggest of porkies; the one that was SO big he felt (in his kingly arrogance) unimpeachable, unassailable, unapproachably clear of exposure as the blood-doped fraud he was. He who bullied and led; he who made blood transfusion an essential part of his winning process. (Yes, that’s er… blood transfusion – lying in the back of a bus – I picture him in some zonked-out cruciform, arms splayed – with ‘fresh’ blood coursing in like some scarlet, performance-enhancing elixir.) See? It’s beyond mere sporting crime and well, we-ell into symbol. And that’s properly big, right?

The fact that Armstrong is an American Icon does surely add some spice to all this. Witness the outbreak of world class wallowing amongst lefty Europeans as another absurd empire falls. Rarely, surely, has there been a clearer or better confirmation in the eyes of the liberal Old World of the essential unchristian hypocrisy of that same Great Nation – Lance’s – the one that gave us U.S. Postal. It’s right up there with Evangelical Frauds and Preacher Paedophiles; it has the quintessential grossness, the lies, the money, the betrayal. We’re loving it, aren’t we?

Armstrong won the Tour 7 times and yes he did fight off cancer. (I’m hoping nobody discovers some link between EPO and surviving cancer, by the way; that could just get too weird.) But given the serial extravagances here, surely, for this All-American Sinner, there must be an appropriately massive revenge of the masses. Some distant Asphixiatingly Brutal Punishment Planet we could send him to? Where they wear bright orange overalls, maybe? Imagine please the amount of labo(u)r – the amount of galactic rock – Lance Armstrong might un-zip, at peak physical condition in a 12 hour sesh. He could supply the Alpe D’huez Freeway Project with enough stone to cobble a way back to Paris, (ma’an).

That may or may not be funny. Certainly most of this story isn’t. Not in terms of what it says about the sport of cycling (we hope to god just) at that time and about fairness and honesty generally in the competitive situation. People, it seems, cheat in order to win? (Who knew?) The implications for cycling in terms of the likes of Rabo-bank pulling out as major sponsors and likely further and broader allegations arising, are seriously serious. As a slightly more than part-time supporter of the sport, I have gone fulsomely on record to argue for greater and wider acknowledgement of the magnificent levels of courage and athleticism and generosity found in the peloton. And – in defence of cycling, perhaps – I want to re-state some of this. Sadly, with certain qualifications.

If cyclists are clean then they are amongst the finest of athletes because;

  • It takes rare courage and belief to race in a pro road race. Injury through crashes or wear and tear of weary limbs are likely. You descend mountains at around 60 miles an hour, in a racing group – which is phenomenally scary. Every fibre must be brilliantly, twitchily engaged for every moment.
  • Stages in the Tour de France (for example) last typically for about 6 or 7 hours, or 120-odd kilometres. Even when these are not mountain stages, there are climbs; it hurts. Levels of fitness are astonishing. They ride 20 stages – 2,500 miles.
  • Despite the intensity of the physical effort, top riders must be race-aware/tactically cute/ready to cover ‘attacks’. So there is little or no rest. In one of the truly great, possibly unique facets of the sport, ‘domestiques’ dedicate themselves day after day to enable success for a team leader they know has the best chance for an overall win. They ‘chase down’ opponents whilst their leader preserves energy; they ‘carry him’ through agonising climbs or periods of tiredness. And the ‘domestiques’ rarely win – not themselves. It’s about sacrifice; how wonderful is that?

The Olympics – and specifically the sensational and ongoing dominance of GB Cycling in the velodrome – gave us a further, more widely-appreciated reminder of the appeal of haring around on wheels. In fact one of the most anticipated events at London 2012, for die-hard fans and more recent converts was the Olympic Road Race, where a certain Manxman (Cavendish – one of the greatest currently-active champions in any sport, in my view) was challenging for gold. That didn’t work out. But cycling went big anyway, for that short period. Offering the hope that perhaps the most significant Olympic legacy may yet be the health/environmental benefit accruing from people getting off their arses… and onto their bikes. How wonderful is that?

‘Midst the genuinely shocking revelations from former team members/masseuse/(any-time-now?) Lance Groupie, the story of the (actual) action itself is subsumed. Racing action that included the most monumental effort from both Armstrong and his team. Sprinting and climbing; thousands of miles. Effort we now dismiss, if we can, from our memories. As we try to dismiss the inevitable daft questions; could he/they have won without doping? How good was he, really, without that stuff? And what about Indurain?

If we wanted to trawl back through (and beyond?) the major records we might be able to gather some picture of how good Armstrong was before; how good
he honestly might have been.
But that’s irrelevant now.

Today Bobby Julich- who coughed – became a former coach to the mighty Sky Professional Road Racing Team. Because as a team they have sworn to have no truck with cheating. And aeons ago, alongside and quite possibly for his team-mate Lance Armstrong, Julich cheated by doping. Whether this is the end of his career in the sport, who knows? But it is the end of something.

Golden yellow?

On the best day of the year – whatever that means – it feels, in that sun-induced schmaltzy-lazy kindofaway, good. Everything does, prettymuch. I just know the sea is fabulous and sparkling; I know the sand is warming and occasionally spiky with heat. I can feel a gentle enough but breathy buzz from visitors and from horses and from yeh – summerstuff. So it’s good. Like the knowledge, the specific knowledge that soon enough I will be jumping off a ledge, with a gang of kids, like some kamikaze or maybe just pleasingly renegade fulmar. Bombing not gracefully gliding or wheeling. Because the sea is fabulous and it’s just crazy not to get deeply in. Now.

Bizarrely or entirely not, this deliriously loopy immersion in a real/ideal goodlife feels spooned or churned from the same golden palette as that which delivered a Parisian ‘Promenade des Anglais’ last week. In particular the moments when a certain B Wiggins majestically (but generously) led the peloton back to foolishly impudent strays. Then, in his leader’s yellow jersey, with his absurdly fluent style, not so much dictating as displaying, the Team SKY leader surfed that quiet ecstasy – his utter confidence – in himself, his team, their invincible combination, to the front, to lead out, symbolically and in fact, the undeniable charge. Whilst the relentlessly awesome Cavendish may have hoiked his frame with short-term, violent brilliance, Wiggo oozed serenely to victory.

That bloke Hoy said afterwards it may be the greatest individual sporting achievement by any Brit ever. (Wiggo’s.) Meaning probably it’s worthy of some serious consideration.

An immediate difficulty may be the shared nature of this; how to – or whether to – meaningfully unfurl say, the mountain stages without some inevitable division of the ultimate glory, out from the yellow-gold centre to the domestiques, the drones, the Froome! Or elsewhere ( maybe even in them thar hills!) to Cavendish, himself a freakishly achieving sprinter in this Anglaisfest… and what’s more – a star, a Cycling Personality! How to calibrate What Bradley Did in these extraordinary folds?

The scope and stature of the Tour de France reveals itself to even the casual observer. The scenery; the geography; the half-heard or remembered stories. Cruel distances and just a sense, a TV-muffled or maladjusted sense of the alarming, near death-defying descents; at sixty miles an hour. We all get that I think. Perhaps if we weigh in the breadth of physical demands – from downhill sprinter-racer to uphill marathon man via or plus lung-bursting time-triallist – these are rare, these are special. Wiggins has simply been world-class throughout; all of these ludicrously disparate challenges being met with a uniform, even-tempered authority.

The scale and the breadth and the historic nature of the accomplishment are surely general knowledge then. Unfortunately however they are undermined in the minds of many by concerns about doping. Not necessarily doping by Wiggins or by SKY but by doping in the sport.

Cycling is not alone in being a manifestly ‘unclean’ sport but its profile is more seriously buffeted rather than buffed by disproportionate news stories – cases of drug use, typically – than almost any other sport. From the early days (when amphetamines were blatantly used) to today’s combination of performance enhancement and masking combo’s a steady trickle of often disappointingly major players have taken stimulants. To the extent that some feel cyclists – like sprinters? – are not to be trusted in this. Wiggins himself had to – or opted to? – put out a staunch and aggressive denial of any abuse of this sort early in this tour. I hope to god he was being truthful. Otherwise my colourific bliss washes dismally out.

But today the sun has shined. And I did and I do return to those golden moments; two in particular. Stages 18 and 20 were drawing to their final few kilometres. Team SKY had gathered at the arrowhead of the peloton to raise speed and haul in foolish outliers. With crowds now massing around the streets towards the finish (one of these streets incidentally name of Champs Elysees) a striking figure appeared, his cadence high and smooth, at the very point of the broiling. Wiggins. And the crowd… the crowd roared.

Wiggins the tour leader/winner, fearlessly blasting his team and his sprinter towards two late wins. Exposing himself on the one hand, expressing himself on the other. Following a plan agreed on the team bus? Yes. Having said he was ‘in’ when Cavendish asked for a crack at the stage? Yes – as did the others. But the essence of both moments was braver and greater than the mere execution of another plan – brilliant though they have been. (Don’t get me started now on the seamlessly outstanding work of Dave Brailsford, Team Coach!) These were golden moments, great moments in sport which I dare not hope to see bettered even in a London 2012 summer. Wiggins was flying, in concentrated joy, in the knowledge and full expression of his genius and control. It was only right and appropriate that such emphatic brilliance was underlined and even temporarily overshadowed by the irresistible surge of the Manx Missile – Cavendish – to acclaim the line.

Like many Brit sports fans I ‘naturally(!)’ shy away from nationalistic fervour but do do worthwhile fervour. That is, spontaneous and genuine fervour devoid(ish) of racial or political stimulants. The sight of Wiggins – and then Cavendish – so gloriously and big-heartedly achieving as individuals for their team (and for us?) was, I may have to mutter with a little embarrassment, both roar-inducing and weirdly conducive to a sort of… pride.

Days later, I put this down to several things, including the truth of the uniqueness of both athletes in terms of their historic significance (now) and their sheer quality. (For Cav to have won 4 Champs Elysees on the bounce is beyond remarkable/for Wiggo to top the Classification speaks for itself.) Essentially though and in terms of sentiment, they have brought a special kind of summer. A jumping-off point.